“ISIS could ignite the entire region”

12.10.2014 - Interview

Interview with Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier in the Tagesspiegel newspaper of 12 October 2014 on the fight against the ISIS terrorists, Turkey’s role and Germany’s contribution.

Interview with Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier in the Tagesspiegel newspaper of 12 October 2014 on the fight against the ISIS terrorists, Turkey’s role and Germany’s contribution.


Why is the international community simply watching the bombardment of the Kurdish city of Kobani by “Islamic State”?

The world is not standing on the sidelines. The Americans, as well as several European and Arab countries, are conducting air strikes against the terrorist militia. Germany is supplying military equipment to the Kurds with the aim of making them stronger in this fight. Military measures are necessary, but they must be integrated into a longer‑term political strategy. German foreign policy is also playing a role in this area.

What role is it playing?

We are trying to convince the Arab countries, Turkey and Iran that we need to tackle ISIS together. For this to happen, old hostilities have to be resolved. I am flying to Jeddah today to speak to the Saudi leaders about this. However, Kobani also shows that the alliance is vital as regards making headway in the fight against ISIS. It does not guarantee that this fight will be won quickly.

Isn’t Kobani already a symbol of the international community’s inability to halt the advance of IS?

I very much hope that this is not the case. Kobani adds a new chapter to the Syrian tragedy. For over three years, there has been neither a military decision nor steps towards a political settlement in the civil war in Syria. Hundreds of thousands of people have already been killed, and millions have fled. We are using military means to try to curtail ISIS’ scope for action. However, we also need to be equally industrious in a new attempt to establish a political solution to the civil war in Syria.

Are air strikes enough to stop IS’ advance?

It is incomparably more difficult in Syria to tackle ISIS successfully through air strikes. We can identify the course of the front in Iraq – the terrorist militia group on the one side, and their opponents on the other. This was why it was possible to halt ISIS’ advance in many places in Iraq. In contrast, Syria has disintegrated into extremely small territories where ISIS militia are operating from densely populated areas. This means that the risk of air strikes hitting innocent bystanders is even higher. That’s what makes it so difficult.

Don’t we need to deploy ground troops?

No western country is prepared to intervene in Syria using its own ground troops. That is the view of all of our partner countries. All of us, myself included, are moved by the suffering of the people in Syria. But we are also responsible for our own soldiers. We cannot send young people into a brutal multi‑front war, where ISIS, troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al‑Assad, and dozens of other militia groups are fighting against each other.

The US and many European and Arab countries are conducting air strikes. Why isn’t Germany?

The answer is simple. We took concerted action at an earlier stage than other countries did. We are providing humanitarian assistance and we are supplying military equipment to the Kurds in northern Iraq. Germany’s role in the fight against “IS” is very well regarded internationally. If a dozen countries are conducting air strikes, it doesn’t make sense for Germany to take part as the thirteenth or fourteenth country. It is completely wrong to make participation in air strikes a benchmark for international commitment. We need a sensible division of labour. We can’t have all countries doing the same thing.

What do you think of the German Defence Minister’s plan to set up a German armed forces training camp for the Peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq?

We are currently transporting the promised arms to northern Iraq. The first tranche has arrived in Erbil, and training has started. We can deal with the question of whether or not we can do more to equip the Iraqi security forces once we have met our commitments.

Turkish tank units are within sight of Kobani, but are not intervening. Is the NATO member state Turkey failing in the fight against IS terrorism?

I welcome the fact that Ankara has joined the international alliance against ISIS. Turkey is situated in the middle of a crisis region and has long borders with Syria and Iraq. The Turks have helped millions of people to save at least their lives in refugee camps. I don’t think it’s right to give Turkey wise advice from afar on what it should do.

The Chancellor told the German Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs that Turkey is setting the wrong priorities. Is Turkey protecting IS in order to harm the Kurds?

I wasn’t there when the Chancellor allegedly said that. I am lobbying for Turkey to do everything it can in the fight against ISIS.

Anger is growing among Kurds in Germany, and there have been street battles with Islamists. Do we have to accept that the conflict is also being fought here?

We share the pain of people living in Germany who are grieving for their compatriots, relatives or fellow believers in Syria or Iraq and who are angry. However, one thing must be clear: anger and grief never justify the use of violence. Germany has done the least to create disorder in the region. We did not participate in the military intervention in Iraq in 2003 that ultimately threw the region into severe turbulence. From the beginning, Germany has provided comprehensive humanitarian assistance in the Syrian civil war and after the advance by ISIS. And the fact too is that in light of the dimension and the incredible dynamism of this conflict, which is allegedly over religion, western countries have limited options as regards bringing the internal conflicts in an Islamic state to a rapid end. This is also true for us. It won’t work unless the neighbouring countries adopt a solution‑focused approach.

There is a debate on the future of the German arms industry. If the Defence Minister has her way, the German Government will only support key technologies in the arms sector in the future, namely encryption and sensor technology. Is that enough?

The best way for us to provide the best possible security for the European Union is if the 28 member states pool their military capabilities. Each EU country does not have to be able to do everything, but the EU must be in a strong position as a whole. This will only work if a large country such as Germany has something to contribute to this division of labour. We need to maintain key competencies in our own country, including in production and development, simply to have something to remain a reliable ally.

So we need more than sensors and encryption devices?

We have products that make us the envy of the world. Why should we stop making submarines when Germany is a global market leader in this segment? Germany is an innovative high‑tech location. We should stay at the top of advances where possible. This does not only make sense in terms of economic policy – it is also a good idea as regards security policy. Our aim has always been to avoid becoming completely dependent on others as regards equipping our own armed forces and to maintain our own technological competencies in defined fields. We should not abandon this principle.

Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has suggested that the Federal Foreign Office, rather than the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, should take the lead on decisions on arms exports in the future. Are you looking forward to this new task?

This is something for future governments to ponder. The competences for the current electoral term have already been decided.

Interview by Stephan Haselberger and Hans Monath. Reproduced by kind permission of the Tagesspiegel.

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